What I Learned from the First Black Self-Made Millionaire
Photo Credit: Everett/Shutterstock
When I was in school and learning about Black History Month, I always gravitated to learning more about Madam C.J. Walker. Her story has always amazed and inspired me. I’m 29 now, but as a young Black girl, it was important for me to see a successful Black woman who defied the odds and found a way to serve the needs of her community and advance a whole industry.
Even today, I feel Walker played a tremendous role in revolutionizing the hair-care industry and helping Black women embrace and take pride in our hair.
Here are a few important lessons I learned from Walker, who became the first female American self-made millionaire.
Defy the Odds
Defying the odds is one of the most important aspects of Black history. I don’t think we’d be celebrating all the amazing, creative, and intelligent men and women who made such an impact on our country if they didn’t defy the odds during their time.
She was the fifth child in her family — and first to be born free.
In a nation where Blacks were historically disadvantaged and heavily oppressed before the civil rights movement, I love how Walker was able to defy the odds to pursue her dreams. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, she was the fifth child in her family and first to be born free. However, her family still lived on the Louisiana cotton plantation where they were previously enslaved and worked for very low wages.
After both her parents died within a year of each other, Sarah moved around to different areas. As a young adult, she ended up working as a washerwoman in St. Louis, earning $1.50 a day. Holding onto a passion for hair care and helping African American women take better care of their hair was at the forefront of her mind.
Focus on Solving a Problem
Like all savvy entrepreneurs, Sarah focused on solving a problem first in order to grow a successful business. Over the years, she suffered from a scalp disorder that caused her to lose a lot of her hair. Knowing that other African American women struggled to care for their hair, too, she started reading up on the issue and experimenting.
She attended public night school whenever she could and learned more about hair-care formulas, even testing some out on herself and her daughter.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job Right Away
In a world where everyone is often praising side hustles and creative entrepreneurship, I think it’s totally fine to play it safe and hold onto your day job and stable income before you take the leap into self-employment. When Walker was still experimenting with her own homemade hair-care products, she continued working as a washerwoman and even worked as a saleswoman under another hair-care business owner.
When she remarried a man named Charles Walker, he helped her out with the business, but he also worked in advertising so the family still had some support — essential for overcoming the rocky beginning stages of starting a business.
Don’t Be Afraid to Promote What You Believe In
Walker’s chances of success were very slim during her time. She was Black and a woman trying to make a name for herself during a time when the civil rights and women’s rights movement were not widely established or supported. She didn’t have access to many of the marketing and advertising opportunities that would have been available during that time.
Even though her husband had advertising experience, investors initially didn’t want to help her, since they saw it as a risky venture. So instead, she decided to use word-of-mouth marketing and go door-to-door with her products. She traveled all over the country — and eventually the world — training women how to use and sell her hair-care products. She even opened a salon near her Indianapolis home.
Walker has earned the title of being "self-made" in my book and I’ve enjoyed watching Netflix’s miniseries inspired by her journey. She was a woman who came from nothing, believed in herself, and was always aiming higher and higher to reach more people with her business.
As someone who was also known for her inspiring quotes, Madam C.J. Walker summed it up perfectly with this one: “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity, but I made it.”
This post is part of a monthlong February CircleAround series tied to Black History Month — the first since the loud calls for social justice this past summer — in which we asked writers to explore the topic of race in America from a variety of perspectives. The murder of George Floyd last summer catalyzed a national reckoning on race, with many questions to be answered. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to email@example.com or post on our "2021 Inspiration Wall."